Gratitude can be easily forgotten in a world filled with terror, fear, and heightened concern for safety. It is not difficult to understand a pervasive mood of suspicion and guardedness given the regularly disruptive news of violence and tragedy. A hand-wringing anxiety replaces the open-heartedness that accompanies gratitude.
More than this, it can seem naïve or insensitive to articulate gratefulness in the midst of human suffering. How can I be thankful when so many around the world suffer in unspeakable ways? It feels more appropriate to maintain a somber outlook as a way of finding solidarity with those who are hurting. Being grateful for personal “blessing” seems to add salt to the wound.
Perhaps this is why it is always amazing to encounter those who find gratitude to be healing even in the midst of loss and tragedy. A powerful editorial by New York Times writer, David Brooks, introduced readers to Kennedy Odede, a Kenyan man who grew up in the infamous Kibera slums of Nairobi. Odede and his wife, Jessica, have created schools for girls and a community organization called Shining Hope for Communities. In their co-written memoir called Find Me Unafraid, Jessica and Kennedy recount the horrors of life growing up in this slum with all of its abundant evil. Kennedy was molested and abused by a priest, repeatedly beaten by his father, watched friends and family murdered before his eyes, saw others die from drug abuse, and had to survive through petty theft because of constant hunger and poverty. Yet, Brooks described Kennedy as the most joyful person he knows. How can this be, Brooks wondered, given all that he suffered? In an email to Brooks, Kennedy wrote:
“While I didn’t have food and couldn’t go to school or when I was the victim or witness of violence, I tried to appreciate things like the sunrise—something that everyone in the world shares and can find joy in no matter if you are rich or poor. Seeing the sunrise was always healing for me, it was a new day and it was a beauty to behold.”(1)
Gratitude for the sunrise was what sustained him and what fueled his desire to do more with his life than what he had been given.
Interestingly, recent studies have concluded that the expression of gratitude can have profound and positive effects on health, mood, and social connections. In one study on gratitude, researchers randomly assigned participants to groups given one of three tasks. Each week, participants kept a short journal. One group briefly described five things they were grateful for that had occurred in the past week, another group recorded five daily hassles from the previous week that displeased them, and the neutral group was asked to list five events or circumstances that affected them, but they were not told whether to focus on the positive or on the negative. Ten weeks later, participants in the gratitude group felt better about their lives as a whole and were a full twenty-five percent happier than the hassled group. They reported fewer health complaints, and exercised an average of 1.5 hours more. In addition, other studies showed that participants in the gratitude group also reported offering others more emotional support or help with a personal problem, indicating that the gratitude exercise increased their goodwill towards others and their “pro-social” motivation.(2)
Kennedy Odebe knows first-hand of a world that seeks to crush its weakest members. His days growing up in the Kibera slum confirmed this reality. With all that he suffered, it would have been easy for him to turn into a hard-hearted and abusive man. There would be ample justification for disappointment and cynicism given his experiences in the world.
But Kennedy found an authentic reason to give thanks and his gratitude for a simple sunrise grew into a life spent giving to others. His gratitude was not borne out of an attempt to escape or as a means of placing his head in the sand to the realities around him. Rather, it was seeing light in the darkest of realities and wanting to share that light with those still grappling with the darkness.
In times of deepest sorrow, there can be a gratitude that rises up on the heart even as thanksgiving comes with tears. Gratitude fosters a heart full of gladness which overflows and spills out into acts of kindness and generosity towards others. When we are grateful, we cannot help but share. As the author of the letter to the Hebrews concludes: Let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God that is the fruit of lips that give thanks to his name. And do not neglect doing good and sharing; for with such sacrifices God is pleased.(2)
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) David Brooks, “The Things They Carry,” The New York Times Op Ed, November 10, 2015.
(2) Ocean Robbins, “The Neuroscience of Why Gratitude Makes Us Healthier,” The Daily Good, October 30, 2015.
(3) Hebrews 13:15-16.